Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), have not been shy about their desire to end all U.S. foreign aid. This week, the elder member of the Paul family is seeking a full House vote on an amendment that would cut $6 billion of U.S. aid to a host of Middle East countries.
Rep. Paul is trying to build support for an amendment to the fiscal 2011 funding bill that would end all foreign assistance to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Pakistan. The funding bill currently being debated by the House, called the continuing resolution (CR), is needed to keep the government running after March 4.
"Stop buying friends overseas, save $6 billion!" reads the headline of a Dear Colleague letter Paul sent to all House offices on Tuesday. In past years, amendments like Paul's, which is not supported by leadership, would not have received a vote because congressional leaders had limited or even prohibited amendments during spending debates. But this year, House Republican leadership decided to use an "open rule" for the CR, giving every member of Congress the right to bring an amendment and have it debated.
There are currently over 400 amendments pending to the bill, and yet somehow the House leadership wants to finish debate this week. Whether they can really do that remains unclear, but even if they succeed, the bill would go to the Senate and then perhaps back to the House once more with new changes from the Senate. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has said that another short-term temporary funding measure might be necessary to keep the government running while the legislative process continues.
Regardless, if Paul's amendment gets a vote, it would be the first time the entire House would vote on whether or not to give $6 billion to these foreign governments. The vote would come in the midst of the largest American fiscal crisis in a generation, which could increase the chance that it would attract significant support.
"Borrowing money from China -- or printing it out of thin air -- to hand out overseas in [an] attempt to purchase friends has been a failing foreign policy, as we see most recently in Egypt where there is not even a government in place!" Paul wrote in his Dear Colleague letter. "We should seek friendly relations and trade overseas, but we cannot justify lavish gifts to foreign leaders when American taxpayers are increasingly feeling the pain of our economic crisis."
Paul, along with his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), represent the libertarian wing of the Tea Party movement, which has been throwing its weight around Congress since the new session started in January. Like-minded members have also been pushing the House GOP leadership to make deeper cuts to the foreign assistance budget. For example, on Jan. 20, the 165-member Republican Study Committee put out a plan that would drastically defund the U.S. Agency for International Development.
While there is probably enough bipartisan support for aid to Israel to defeat Paul's amendment, the debate over continued funding for other Arab countries is more complex. Some GOP heavyweights, like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), have suggested scuttling all foreign aid that is not designated for staunch U.S. allies such as Israel. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued for restricting aid to the Egyptian government unless it excludes the Muslim Brotherhood from any representation in the new parliament.
Other leading Republicans, especially in the Senate, have voiced support for continuing U.S. assistance to Egypt and Jordan. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is working behind the scenes to craft an aid package to the CR that would fully fund the president's request for foreign aid to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Aid to Pakistan, which totals over $1.5 billion each year, has strong support from Senate Foreign Relations Committee heads John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
Regardless, Paul's amendment represents the rising tide of opposition to foreign aid and the increased difficulty of defending such aid in Congress.
"We cannot afford to have ‘business as usual' when we are bankrupt," he wrote.
There's a raging debate on Capitol Hill surrounding huge cuts to foreign aid funding proposed in the House Republicans' latest spending bill. But several senators are looking to add a generous foreign aid package for Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and other Middle Eastern countries when the bill comes over from the House.
"A [continuing resolution] that had full year funding for the troops plus an Egypt, Israel, and Middle East stability package of full year funding would send the right signal from the United States," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable in an exclusive interview.
The current version of the continuing resolution, which is needed to keep the government running past March 4, is being debated in the House now. It proposes significant cuts in the State Department and foreign assistance budgets below what the president requested for fiscal 2011, which began last October.
Kirk said several senators on both sides of the aisle supported the new Middle East Stability funding package, which would fully fund foreign aid accounts for a host of countries in the region at the level requested by the president and pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.
"There's not a need to fund the full foreign assistance program but there is a need for Egypt, Israel, and Jordan related programs to receive full funding for fiscal 2011 right now. This is being discussed and I strongly support it," Kirk said.
Back in the House, there is plenty of support for funding Israel aid, which totals about $3 billion per year, but some Republicans are looking to restrict aid to other Middle East countries, such as Egypt. House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) has argued that further funding should be withheld from Egypt unless they exclude Islamist groups such as the the Muslim Brotherhood, from participating in the new government.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable in an exclusive interview that new funding for Egypt was needed to bolster secular and moderate political groups that have been marginalized over the past decades under the old Egyptian regime.
Berman supports increased funding for U.S.-based organizations that promote civil society in Egypt, such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
"We need to educate [moderate Egyptian political groups] on how to communicate, how to build a political party, how to organize. There's a way to do that without choosing who you want but giving the secular parties some skills and some resources to get going," Berman said.
Berman said that increased aid to Egypt now should not be held up due to concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood, which he argued is not going to be particularly interested in NDI or IRI programs anyway.
"America can't decide who participates, we shouldn't, and to the extent we try to too clumsily, we are going to hurt the cause we all share," Berman said. "Mubarak is the one who drew the line, ‘it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood.' Our job is to create an alternative."
If groups have a chance to organize, the vast majority of the Egyptian population will not be receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda, Berman said. That doesn't mean, however, that he takes the threat posed by Islamist groups in Egypt lightly."Am I concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha," he said.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an exclusive interview with The Cable, credited the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda with setting the stage for the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. But he also warned that Egypt and the other countries in the region could easily slip into the hands of repressive groups that have been lying in wait.
"That region does not have a long proud history of free political institutions, free economic institutions, and democracy," Rumsfeld said. "What President Bush has done in Iraq and Afghanistan is to give the people in those countries a chance to have freer political systems and freer economic systems. There's no question that the example is helpful in the region."
But now, several years later, nominally pro-Western movements throughout the Middle East have been defeated by repressive and authoritarian organizations -- a situation that could very well repeat itself in Egypt with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Rumsfeld said, because those groups tend to be better organized and more vicious.
"So while what's happening is hopeful, all of us have to be realistic and hope the process is one, that unlike Lebanon, unlike Gaza, and unlike Iran, does not end up bringing people's hopes up and then dashed with a repressive regime," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld criticized the Obama administration's mixed messaging during the Egypt crisis, specifically referencing the State Department's decision to send Frank Wisner as an unofficial envoy to Cairo. The Obama administration was subsequently forced to distance itself from Wisner when he publicly called for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to stay in power only days later.
"I think it's unfortunate that they appointed Frank Wisner and then within a matter of hours got cross waves between the Department of State, the White House, and their special envoy. Clearly that weakens our voice to have mixed signals," Rumsfeld said.
Regarding the role of the Egyptian military, which now has effective control of the government in Cairo, Rumsfeld said that it may or may not turn out to be a responsible steward of power and the transition to free and fair elections.
"If one had to put some money down, you would want odds, but I would take the odds favoring that [the Egyptian military] would behave in a positive and constructive way," Rumsfeld said. "One has to say that managing this process is not going to be easy."
Rumsfeld said that he believes the tidal wave of change sweeping the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to increase its support for the opposition movement in Iran.
"I hope there are a variety of things taking place in our government, in some instances appropriately public but in some instances private ... and that the examples that we are seeing elsewhere in the region, I would hope we would encourage in Iran," he said.
Rumsfeld has over 40 years of experience dealing with Egypt and the Arab world. In his new memoir Known and Unknown, he recounts the first time he met then Vice President Mubarak, in June 1975. At the time, Rumsfeld was serving as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford. "On a personal level, I found him animated, even ebullient," Rumsfeld wrote.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Here is the full text of President Obama's Friday remarks on the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak:
There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard. And Egypt will never be the same. By stepping down, President Mubarak responded to the Egyptian people's hunger for change. but this is not the end of Egypt's transition. It's a beginning. I'm sure there will be difficult days ahead and many questions remain unanswered. But I am confident that the people of Egypt can find the answers, and do so peacefully, constructively, and in the spirit of unity that has defined these last few weeks, for Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.
The military has served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people. That means protecting the rights of Egypt's citizens, lifting the emergency law, revising the constitution and other laws to make this change irreversible, and laying out a clear path to elections that are fair and free. Above all this transition must bring all of Egypt's voices to the table for the spirit of peaceful protest and perseverence that the Egyptian people have shown can serve as a powerful wind at the back of this change. The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary and asked for to pursue a credible transition to a democracy.
I'm also confident that the same ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit that the young people of Egypt have shown in recent days can be harnessed to create new opportunity, jobs and businesses that allow the extraordinary potential of this generation to take flight. I know that a democratic Egypt can advance its role of responsible leadership not only in the region but around the world.
Egypt has played a pivotal role in human history for over 6,000 years. But over the last few weeks the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights. We saw mothers and fathers carrying their children on their shoulders to show them what true freedom might look like. We saw young Egyptians say, for the first time in my life I really count. My voice is heard. Even though I'm only one person, this is the way real democracy works. We saw protestors chant... 'We are peaceful, again and again.'
We saw a military that would not fire bullets at the people they were sworn
to protect. And we saw doctors and nurses rushing into the streets to care for
the wound. Volunteers checking protestors to ensure that they were unarmed. We
saw people of faith praying together and chanting Muslims, Christians, we are
one. And though we know the strains of faith divide too many in this world and
no single event will close that chasm immediately, these scenes show us that we
need not be defined by our differences. We can be defined by the common
humanity that we share.
And, above all, we saw a new generation emerge, a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears. A government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply -- most people have discovered in the last few days that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore. Ever.
This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they've done so by putting the eye to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more. And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can't help but hear the echoes of history, echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, there's something in the soul that cries out for freedom.
Those were the cries that came from Tahrir square and the entire world has taken note. Today belongs to the people of Egypt, and the American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people and the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in. The word ‘Tahrir' means liberation. It's a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forever more it will remind us of the Egyptian people, of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country and in doing so changed the world. Thank you.
The Obama administration was caught by surprise on Thursday night when President Hosni Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian people and initially declined to step down as leader of the country. Following the speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen quickly phoned their counterparts in the Egyptian military.
Today, the military assumed control of the Egyptian government and Vice President Omar Suleiman announced in a recorded statement that Mubarak had stepped down from the presidency. "Secretary Gates spoke with [Defense Minister] Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi again last night," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed to The Cable.
"It was his fifth phone conversation with the Egyptian defense minister since the situation in Egypt began."
Captain John Kirby, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, confirmed to The Cable that Mullen called Egyptian Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan following the Mubarak speech. Mullen and Anan have spoken four times since Jan. 25, and the last call before Thursday night was on Saturday, Feb. 5, Kirby said.
Both Morrell and Kirby declined to give details on the substance of the calls.
Press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday morning that President Barack Obama did not call Mubarak after the speech. The last reported call between Vice President Joseph Biden and Suleiman was Feb. 8, when Biden pressed Suleiman to expand his dialogue with opposition groups.
The Gates and Mullen phone calls are emblematic of the sustained but quiet engagement with their military counterparts that the Pentagon has been undertaking throughout the crisis. That effort has been especially important in recent days, as the military's role has increased and its allegiances have come under closer scrutiny.
The Pentagon even sent out a quiet request to scores of U.S. military officers last week, asking them to contact any Egyptian military members they might know through past associations at American military colleges, the Washington Post reported.
The officers weren't told to deliver any specific messages. The outreach has been rather about collecting information from the Egyptian military and making sure that the military-to-military relationship remained intact, a Pentagon official said, adding that similar outreach has occurred between the Pentagon and its interlocutors in other countries, including Israel.
The White House and the State Department have disagreed on how much pressure to place on Mubarak and Suleiman. The Pentagon has sided mostly with State, arguing for more support of existing Egyptian institutions of power, especially the military. Some observers see the Pentagon as inclined to favor supporting the Egyptian military due its own interests and natural institutional biases.
"The Pentagon is simply so used to letting the Egyptian military have what they want," said one former U.S. official who dealt with the Pentagon on Egypt. "The Pentagon has wanted to keep their involvement at a strictly military-to-military level. So they are reluctant to be part of diplomacy at the top level, but insistent in being engaged in their own diplomacy for their own interest."
Regardless, the direct intervention of top Pentagon and U.S. military officials at key times throughout the crisis may have influenced the Egyptian military's behavior at key junctures, such as when the Egyptian military was implicated in the crackdown of journalists and human rights activists last weekend. Pentagon officials believe their outreach contributed to the relative restraint of the Egyptian Army.
It's unclear whether Gates and Mullen's telephone diplomacy last night actually influenced the events that unfolded only hours later. But the Pentagon's relationships with the Egyptian military are now among the most crucial avenues of communication and influence for U.S. policy toward Egypt going forward.
President Obama's remarks on Egypt have been pushed back to 3 p.m. Meanwhile, here are some of the reactions pouring in from officials, lawmakers, and experts on today's resignation of (former) Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Vice President Joseph Biden:
This is a pivotal moment, it's a pivotal moment not only in the Mideast but in history.… All has changed in the last 15 years internationally and all continues to change.… The future depends on our ability to adequately understand and engage the truths of our time.
We have said from the beginning, that future of Egypt will be determined by Egyptian people.… [E]ven in this contentious political climate in which we work, on this issue the United States has largely spoken with one voice.… This unity has been important, and it will be even more important in these delicate and fateful days ahead.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA):
This is an extraordinary moment for Egypt. Courageous and peaceful demands for freedom and opportunity have now won the Egyptian people a chance at a new beginning. Now the hard work intensifies to prepare for free and fair elections that will allow the people to choose a broadly representative and responsive government.
Egypt's army and transitional leaders must heed the call to lift the emergency law and clarify a timetable to establish a proper foundation for credible elections. The United States must help Egyptians turn this democratic moment into a process that builds a government responsive to economic needs as well as demands for freedom. What happens next will have repercussions far beyond Egypt's borders. We know from recent experience in Gaza that this requires not just elections, but hard work to build a government that is transparent, accountable, and broadly representative.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL):
Now that the immediate demands of the Egyptian people have been met, steps must be taken for the prompt commencement of a calm and orderly transition process towards freedom and democracy in Egypt. This transition must include constitutional and administrative reforms, starting with the repeal of the emergency laws. These are necessary for legitimate, democratic, internationally recognized elections to take place with peaceful, responsible actors who will not only advance the aspirations of the Egyptian people, but will continue to enforce Egypt's international obligations.
The Egyptian military can continue to play a constructive role in providing for security and stability during this transformational period. The U.S. and our allies must focus our efforts on helping to create the necessary conditions for such a transition to take place. We must also urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt's relationship with the United States, Israel, and other free nations.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ):
While this is a welcomed event, the Egyptian people are clearly saying that President Mubarak's resignation should be the beginning, not the end, of their country's transition to democracy. I completely agree. For the Egyptian people to achieve the legitimate and enduring democratic change they seek, representatives from Egypt's pro-democracy parties and movements must be included in the transition government. In advance of elections later this year, Egyptians must be free to exercise their universal rights peacefully - to speak and express themselves without interference, including over the internet; to organize independent political parties; to register candidates of their choosing for office; and to participate in elections that are free and fair by international standards.
In the days ahead, the Egyptian military will continue to have a critical role in maintaining order and stability while allowing their fellow Egyptians to exercise their universal rights in peace. The Egyptian people are demanding a meaningful and irreversible transition to democracy, and I urge the Egyptian military to faithfully support and secure the coming process of political change in Egypt.
Former Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI):
As the world watches events unfold in Egypt, it only highlights the need to reform how the United States gathers information around the world, so that we can anticipate events rather than simply respond to them. This reform includes using all the tools at our disposal, integrating clandestine collection of intelligence with the means by which our government gathers information openly. Last year, Congress passed bipartisan legislation to create an independent commission to examine long-standing weaknesses in our intelligence capabilities and make recommendations for reform. It is now time that the commission be funded, its membership constituted, and its critical work begun.
Center for American Progress' Brian Katulis:
Mubarak leaving office is only the first step in Egypt's political transition, and will not resolve Egypt's ongoing political crisis. It remains unclear whether the Egyptian people will accept Vice President Suleiman as an interim leader, and the National Assembly, Egypt's legislature, does not reflect the free vote of the Egyptian people. Constitutional reforms are necessary to open up the political system to all political parties and groups willing to play by the rules of democracy. In short, what Egypt needs is a full reboot of its political system. The Obama administration should remain focused on the constructive long-term goal of a peaceful and orderly transition to a free and democratic Egypt, and should continue to support steps - such as a new round of free and fair parliamentary elections - toward ensuring that outcome.
Former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller:
If we're lucky this time around, we'll avoid the who-lost-Egypt debate. Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down has pre-empted a catastrophic crisis for Egypt and for American interests. We may not be adept at manipulating Middle Eastern politics; but we're sure experts at beating ourselves up.
Commentators and analysts have argued forcefully that Barack Obama's administration failed to anticipate the current crisis, blew an opportunity by failing to push Mubarak to make significant reforms during the early days of the upheaval, and risked being on the wrong side of history by not being assertive in trying to force Mubarak's removal. But the administration was smart to keep its distance from this crisis.
The announcement by Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman that Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as president came just as President Obama was meeting with senior national security team members in the White House.
"The President was informed of President Mubarak's decision to step down during a meeting in the Oval Office. He then watched TV coverage of the scene in Cairo for several minutes in the outer Oval," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement to reporters.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg were in attendance at the White House meeting. The daily State Department press briefing is on hold.
Obama will make an on-camera statement on the situation in Egypt later today around 1:30 p.m.
See a live stream of the celebration scene on Tahrir Square here.
The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient. Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world. The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.
As we have said from the beginning of this unrest, the future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people. But the United States has also been clear that we stand for a set of core principles. We believe that the universal rights of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations must be met. We believe that this transition must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change, and a negotiated path to democracy. To that end, we believe that the emergency law should be lifted. We believe that meaningful negotiations with the broad opposition and Egyptian civil society should address the key questions confronting Egypt's future: protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens; revising the Constitution and other laws to demonstrate irreversible change; and jointly developing a clear roadmap to elections that are free and fair.
We therefore urge the Egyptian government to move swiftly to explain the changes that have been made, and to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step by step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek. Going forward, it will be essential that the universal rights of the Egyptian people be respected. There must be restraint by all parties. Violence must be forsaken. It is imperative that the government not respond to the aspirations of their people with repression or brutality. The voices of the Egyptian people must be heard.
The Egyptian people have made it clear that there is no going back to the way things were: Egypt has changed, and its future is in the hands of the people. Those who have exercised their right to peaceful assembly represent the greatness of the Egyptian people, and are broadly representative of Egyptian society. We have seen young and old, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian join together, and earn the respect of the world through their non-violent calls for change. In that effort, young people have been at the forefront, and a new generation has emerged. They have made it clear that Egypt must reflect their hopes, fulfill their highest aspirations, and tap their boundless potential. In these difficult times, I know that the Egyptian people will persevere, and they must know that they will continue to have a friend in the United States of America.
The State Department confirmed on Thursday that Khairy Ramadan Aly, an Egyptian national who worked as a carpenter at the U.S. embassy in Cairo for 18 years, is dead. He went missing amid the protests on Jan. 28.
"On behalf of all the men and women of the State Department and USAID, I offer our condolences to the friends and loved ones of Khairy Ramadan Aly, a member of our Embassy family in Cairo," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement. "Throughout this period, many Egyptian employees of the U.S. Mission have continued to work alongside their American colleagues in Cairo and Alexandria. The United States is grateful for their contributions, commitment and sacrifice during this difficult time."
Aly went to Tahrir Square in search for his son, who had gone into the square to protest and then went missing. Aly was apparently shot three times, although it's unclear when, in what could have been a random act of violence, according to the Associated Press. His son eventually returned home of his own accord.
Clinton placed the responsibility on the Egyptian government to respect and protect the rights and safety of the protesters on the streets.
"Abuses committed against those seeking to exercise basic freedoms must stop," she said. "There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the armed forces, to protect those threatened and to hold accountable those responsible for using violence and intimidation that threatens the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
The Obama administration has gone silent following the latest speech by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in which he seemed to cede some powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman but refused to step down from office.
"We don't have any immediate comment," National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable. Follow-up requests for information about how the White House was processing the latest news from Cairo went unreturned. The State Department cancelled its daily press briefing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled two scheduled interviews, and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley's latest tweet on the matter was several hours ago.
"The #Egyptian people will keep coming to #TahrirSquare. #Democracy means that peaceful protesters are both tolerated and protected," Crowley tweeted at about 9 a.m., when news reports were predicting Mubarak would resign.
The administration may be seeking to stem the flood of confusion following a stream of statements on Egypt from senior officials in various testimonies to Congress Thursday morning. CIA Director Leon Panetta was forced to clarify his statement earlier today when he said, "I have heard there's a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," explaining that his comment was based on news reports, not intelligence data.
At the same hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stunned lawmakers when he declared that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was "largely secular."
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg was able to stay on message, refusing to comment on the ever evolving situation on the ground and repeating the administration's line that change must come -- and be based on -- the core principles of non-violence, respect for universal rights, and real political reform.
But there's no doubt that the White House's delicate balancing act, whereby they have expressed support for the transitional process led by Suleiman while still pressing him for greater openness in that process, has now been overtaken by events. Exactly what the new message will be is what the administration is working on right now.
Mubarak and his ministers have been critical of the statements coming out of the Obama administration and in his speech Mubarak defiantly stated, "I have never ever been accepting any sort of foreign intervention in Egyptian affairs."
In an interview Wednesday with PBS News Hour, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that U.S. statements calling for faster reform were not helpful, "because when you speak about prompt, immediate, now, as if you are imposing on a great country like Egypt, a great friend that have always maintained the best of relationship with the United States, you are imposing your will on him."
Speaking earlier on Thursday in Michigan at a scheduled event, President Barack Obama stayed away from making news on the crisis in Egypt and cautioned that the events in Cairo were still very much up in the air.
"We are following today's events in Egypt very closely and we'll have more to say as this plays out," the president said. "But what is absolutely clear is that we are witnessing history unfold. It's a moment of transformation that's taking place because the people of Egypt are calling for change."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is only one of the many people in Washington who are scratching their heads today after the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was mostly a "secular" group.
"The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood' is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam," Clapper told the first ever hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI).
Clapper's public affairs chief Jamie Smith "clarified" the remarks, telling ABC that Clapper really meant to say that "in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak's rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation - he is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."
But the gaffe was enough to invoke the ire of many in Congress, who are warning about the risks of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. Kirk, who was a Naval intelligence officer, issued a statement criticizing Clapper Thursday afternoon.
"I am concerned that the DNI's assessment does not agree with recent public statements by senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood nor does it agree with the organization's publicly stated goals," Kirk's statement read. "As the world watches these historic events unfolding in Egypt, the United States should support an orderly transition to democracy that prevents the radical Muslim Brotherhood from grabbing power."
The debate over the real identity and role of the Brotherhood is just starting in Congress, and was at the top of lawmakers' concerns at Wednesday's hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors," Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing. "The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
As reports streamed out of Cairo that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may cede power to the Egyptian military this evening, several senior administration officials happened to be testifying on Capitol Hill and were questioned directly about the reports.
"Like you I have heard there's a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in its first hearing under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI). A CIA spokesman quickly clarified that Panetta was not independently confirming this fact.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is holding its second hearing under new chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), refused to comment on the latest reports regarding Mubarak. His opening statement before the committee reiterated the administration's support for a gradual transition in Egypt -- an idea that may soon be overtaken by events.
"Changes must come [in Egypt], but we must be mindful that transitions can lead to chaos, or forms of intolerance, or backsliding into authoritarianism," Steinberg said. "We are urging Egypt's government and opposition to engage in serious and inclusive negotiations to arrive at a timetable, game plan, and path to constitutional and political reform. And as they do, we will support principles, processes, and institutions, not personalities."
Ros-Lehtinen was scathing in her criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis, arguing that it has not been supportive enough of the protesters, that there was no contingency planning done by the NSC to prepare for Mubarak's departure, and that the administration's policy over the last two weeks has been constantly changing and unclear.
Steinberg acknowledged the difficulty of establishing and then communicating a clear policy while the events on the ground continued to unfold.
"What is critical as we see this unfolding dynamic is that we remain in our principles, as well as the values and interests that we bring forward, while remaining nimble to adapt to changing circumstances," he said. "It's a little bit like having a good game plan but also knowing when to call an audible."
Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was originally scheduled to testify at the hearing, but was removed from the list yesterday.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Cairo
remains fluid. Egypt's
armed forces said on Thursday they have started taking
"necessary measures to protect the nation" and "support the
legitimate demands of the people."
Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced the concerns of many in Congress about the role of the Egyptian military and its intentions regarding democracy and transparency.
"Given the military's influence over the regime - a regime that was born in the military, and whose entire leadership is composed of military men -- the democratic transition will happen if, and only if, the military does play a constructive role," he said.
The White House and the State Department have been sending out different messages over the past few days regarding the U.S. position on Egypt. The seeming disparity between the focus and tone of remarks by officials from each part of the government has the Washington community wondering if there's a rift between Pennsylvania Avenue and Foggy Bottom and who's really in charge.
Internal disagreements on how closely to align the United States with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and his self-interested reform process emerged into public view last weekend, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Munich Security Conference that the U.S. is calling on the international community to support the process initiated by Suleiman. Clinton also had to distance herself from the comments of the State Department's chosen "envoy" Frank Wisner, who called for Mubarak to stay in power when he spoke at the conference in Munich.
Then, three days later, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke with Suleiman and gave him a list of further steps the U.S. wants him to take to open up the process, clearly expressing the official administration position that Suleiman's process is not acceptable in its current form.
On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, the NSC's Ben Rhodes said that the White House and the State Department have been "very closely aligned" and said that the difference between what Clinton said in Munich and what Biden told Suleiman three days later was a reflection of the changing circumstances on the ground.
"[Clinton] was just stating [in Munich] the matter of fact that Vice President Suleiman is the person conducting these negotiations for the government... Our response on Monday and Tuesday was in reaction to [Suleiman's] statements and it was to say that those statements alone were insufficient because they didn't constitute concrete action," Rhodes said. "I think it's entirely consistent to again state support for a process of negotiation... but to then hold the government accountable in terms of identifying the kinds of steps that we believe need to take place and that the Egyptian people are calling for."
Clinton's deputy chief of staff and new director for policy planning, Jake Sullivan, argued that the White House and the State Department have been aligned on the three core principles the U.S. government has been advocating for throughout the crisis: non-violence, respect for universal rights, and the need for political change.
"The theory of the case has remained consistent...and it's something on which the Secretary, the president and all of the other national security team members have been aligned on. And that's been true in the true public messaging. It's been true in the private messaging as well, " Sullivan said. "The situation is changing day by day even as we maintain the same basic core to our approach."
Experts close to the administration agreed with that to some degree, but said that mixed messaging from State and the White House was muddying communication of those core principles. The biases are based in institutional cultures, they said, and the gaps between the two camps are real.
"You had a similar dynamic in the later years of the Bush administration. There was President Bush and [NSC senior director] Elliott Abrams at the White House still trying to push the freedom agenda and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department very much trying to play it down," said Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The messages out of the administration have been extremely confusing and I think they realize that."
Abrams told The Cable that there are probably divisions in both places. "Where the State Department came out of its internal debate is in one place, where the White House has come out is in a different place," he said. "In the end it's about winning the hearts and minds, not of the Egyptian people, but of Obama, Biden, Clinton and Gates."
Deeper down in the administration, several official are playing influential roles in how the policy is being formed on each side. On the White House side, NSC Director Dan Shapiro, NSC Senior Director Samantha Power, and Rhodes have been leading the White House's outreach with the foreign policy expert community and held their latest meeting with experts on Tuesday.
Attendees reportedly included Dunne, Abrams, WINEP's Scott Carpenter, New America's Steve Clemons, CSIS's Jon Alterman, USIP's Dan Brumberg, Johns Hopkins' Fouad Ajami, and Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski.
Inside the State Department, Clinton is being advised on Egypt by several officials who have deep experience with Egypt, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, who had suggested Wisner be sent to Cairo to deal with Mubarak, and Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, among others.
"The people whispering in her ears are people like Bill Burns, who is preoccupied with most often trying to save us from ourselves," Carpenter told The Cable. "Burns is legitimately concerned with how this all unfolds, but his interest is in preserving as much of the status quo with the current government of Egypt as possible. Meanwhile, the White House is saying that it's in our interest to build a new relationship because if we don't it's going to lead to something worse when the next government comes. So that leads them to conclude that they have to save State from themselves."
Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, is increasingly seen as someone who understands the wider risks to U.S. foreign policy of being tougher on Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak but is nevertheless looking for creative ways to square that circle.
"Some people on the inside say ‘Thank God for Feltman,'" because he's trying to prepare State for a changed relationship with Egypt after Mubarak leaves and trying to look over the horizon, Carpenter said.
On the specific policy toward Egypt, the difference between the current thinking at the White House as opposed to at the State Department surrounds exactly how much leeway Suleiman should have in setting up the committees that will negotiate and then oversee the political reform process leading up the elections.
On his blog the Washington Note, Clemons wrote that a senior White House official told him they want to see the emerging transitional process look like a "potluck dinner," where everyone brings their own ideas and has real power off the bat, rather than a hosted "dinner party" where Suleiman decides the guest list, the agenda, and thereby the results.
"The State Department is advocating a hosted dinner, where the power still resides with the incumbents," Clemons told The Cable. "That's not good enough for the White House."
Today's first hearing of the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee was dominated by the question of how much the United States should fear the empowerment of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and what leverage should be used against the Egyptian military to get them to behave in accordance with U.S. interests.
Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) opened the hearing with a broad criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in Egypt, which she said is now tilting too far in support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and is failing to counteract the threat posed by the rise of Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Instead of being proactive, we have been obsessed with maintaining short-term, personality-based stability -- stability that was never really all that stable, as the events of the recent week demonstrate," she said.
"Now the White House is reportedly making matters worse by apparently re-examining its position on dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, but also stating that a new Egyptian government should include a whole host of important nonsecular actors. The Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with driving these protests, and they and other extremists must not be allowed to hijack the movement toward democracy and freedom in Egypt."
Ros-Lehtinen repeated her argument that the United States should try to impose strict criteria on the process to ensure only "responsible actors" can participate in Egyptian governance, which she defined as those who renounce violent extremism and pledge to uphold Egypt's international commitments, including its peace treaty with Israel.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic counterpart, didn't have any nice things to say about the Muslim Brotherhood either.
"Like many I am skeptical about the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to democracy. The Brotherhood wants Egypt to be governed by religious law rather than man-made law, a problematic position for a democrat. It has a bloody history," he said. "Even in the best-case scenario where the Brotherhood proves itself fully committed to democracy, there is every reason to believe it will try to influence the Egyptian government in ways that undermine U.S. interests and that will make Egypt a regressive, less-tolerant place."
Prior to the start of the hearing, Berman formally announced the names of the new ranking Democrats on the various subcommittees, including Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) on the Middle East subcommittee. Ackerman offered the most scathing criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the Egypt crisis at the hearing.
"In Egypt I fear that we are snatching failure from the jaws of success," he said. "The Obama administration now appears to be wavering about whether America really backs the demands of the Egyptian people or just wants to return to stability, which is a facade."
Ackerman turned the hearing into a discussion of the Egyptian military's role and the trustworthiness of Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former head of Mubarak's national intelligence agency. Ackerman criticized what he sees as a gap between the administration's rhetoric and its policy, and called on the White House to suspend military aid to Egypt now.
"The people yearn to be free. We must plant ourselves firmly on their side," he said. "We need to suspend our aid to Egypt. We simply cannot afford to be seen in Egypt as being a bankroll to oppression."
For his part, Berman disagreed with Ackerman and said that the United States should continue to use aid as leverage against the military, in order to pressure Suleiman and others to act in ways that support U.S. interests and values.
The foreign-policy experts that appeared before the committee largely agreed that military aid should be continued for the time being, but not if the Egyptian military proves to be impeding rather than advancing the course of reform.
"The Army may not have made up its mind yet. Now is the time to signal to them this aid is conditional," said former National Security Council official Elliott Abrams.
"The United State doesn't have so many levers," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Why would we throw away this arrow before it's absolutely apparent that the Egyptian Army has made a choice to suppress and refuse change? That seems to be unwise."
The experts disagreed on how the United States should handle the Muslim Brotherhood. Abrams said that "conditions that forbid religious parties are actually quite useful." Satloff urged a middle-of-the-road approach.
"Don't exaggerate [the danger of the Brotherhood], and also don't be naive," he said.
Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, argued that there are plenty of other secular political organizations in Egypt for the United States to work with besides the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We have to stop presenting ourselves with the choice that Mubarak gave us. There are groups in the middle," he said.
But Ackerman was skeptical that those groups were ready to take on a leadership role after decades of suppression. "If you over-pesticide your garden, you only get the weeds that survive," he said.
The other ranking Democrats on the committee announced today were Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) on the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation, and trade; Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) on the subcommittee on oversight and investigations; Donald Payne (D-N.J.) on the subcommittee on Africa, global health, and human rights; Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) on the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific; Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia; and Elliott Engel (D-N.Y.) on the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
Berman also announced a plan to introduce the "Hezbollah anti-terrorism act of 2011," which would limit U.S. foreign assistance to Lebanon until President Obama certifies that none of the funds will go to Hezbollah-controlled agencies and that the Lebanese government is dismantling Hezbollah's military infrastructure.
Uber-diplomat Frank Wisner won't be making any public remarks on the crisis in Egypt anytime soon; the Obama administration has directed him to steer clear of the press following his command performance in Munich, where he went off the reservation of the Obama administration's policy and forced the administration to distance itself from him and his remarks.
Wisner is back in New York at his day job at Patton Boggs, the lobbying law firm where he has worked since February 2009. He had a busy week, which began Jan. 31 with being dispatched by the Obama administration to deliver a direct message to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He reportedly delivered Obama's tough message that Mubarak must start the transition of power "now." The week ended with him telling the entire Munich Security Conference, which included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the audience, that Mubarak must stay in power to oversee changes in government.
"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's his chance to write his own legacy," Wisner told the conference.
The remarks were so far off of the administration's message, which at this moment is that it's not the U.S. government's place to weigh in on Mubarak's future, that Clinton was forced to clarify on the plane ride home that Wisner was a private citizen and in no way spoke on behalf of the U.S. government.
But was the State Department even aware of what Wisner was going to say in Munich? "He did not give us a heads-up," a State Department official told The Cable.
Wisner was suggested for the "envoy" assignment to talk with Mubarak by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, two administration officials confirmed. Burns is the highest-ranking Foreign Service officer at State and has known Wisner for decades.
Inside the administration's policy process on Egypt, Burns is a key player, having been U.S. ambassador to Jordan and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. He wrote a book called Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, published in 1985, just before Wisner was named ambassador to Cairo.
But Wisner's embrace of Mubarak goes even further than Burns's position. "The implication that Bill agrees with [Wisner's] public statements since [Wisner's trip to Cairo] … is just plain wrong," an administration official told The Cable.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Monday that the administration knew about Wisner's work for the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which does business in Egypt, and that his long relationship with Mubarak was an asset, not a detraction.
"We're aware of his employer.… And we felt that he was uniquely positioned to have the kind of conversation that we felt needed to be done in Egypt," Crowley said.
A spokesman for Patton Boggs told the New York Times that Patton Boggs was not doing significant work on behalf of the Egyptian government and that Wisner "has no involvement and has not had any involvement in Egyptian business while at the firm."
The White House on Monday argued that Wisner dutifully completed his assigned task in Cairo, which was "to deliver a specific, one-time message to President Mubarak," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
"He is not and was not a U.S. envoy. He was not sent to negotiate. He is an individual who has a long history with President Mubarak and thus could deliver a clear message. He spoke to President Mubarak once, reported on his conversation, and then came home," Vietor said.
Nevertheless, don't expect the Obama administration to send any more one-off, high-level envoys anytime soon.
"We are completely confident in our ability to communicate directly with the government of Egypt at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and through our embassy," Vietor said.
CORRECTED: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Patton Boggs was part of the PLM Group, a lobbying entity comprising firms led by Tony Podesta, Bob Livingston, and Toby Moffet. Patton Boggs is not part of the PLM group, which has lobbied extensively on behalf of the Egyptian government.
The State Department now acknowledges that "elements" of the Egyptian military have taken part in the violent crackdown on journalists and activists in Cairo over the past few days, calling into question the positive influence and neutrality of the military, which the Obama administration praised last week.
Human rights activists in Washington and Cairo reported last week uniformed Egyptian military personnel were directly involved in the arrest, detention, and interrogation of human rights activists in Egypt, including the raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which included the arrest of Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams. In a gripping first-hand account on Monday, Williams explained the extensive role of Egyptian military personnel in his incarceration.
"The initial impression was that the military sided with the demonstrators yet provided order amid the chaos, which is why I was surprised to see the soldier on the chair, harassing the human rights workers about a ‘suspicious meeting' with foreigners bent on ‘ruining our country,' Williams wrote on Monday at The Daily Beast. "There was no doubt that the army was in charge of the raid. At one point, a major general showed up at the Hisham Mubarak center and other officers worked hand in glove with a uniformed policeman, plainclothes state security agents and assorted abusive henchmen."
Williams was brought with other activists and a Japanese photographer to Camp 75, a military headquarters in northeast Cairo, where he was interrogated and held for 36 hours.
"The raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center exemplifies the persistence of abusive security practices under a military establishment, which claims it wants transition from the past," he wrote. "But in this and other cases, now being documented by Human Rights Watch, the army was clearly in charge of arbitrary and sometimes violent arrests, even if the beatings and torture had been "outsourced" to other agencies or thugs."
Pressed on the issue by The Cable at today's briefing, spokesman P.J. Crowley said the State Department was aware that some military units participated in the raids but also pointed out that other military units played a role in protecting journalists and maintaining a measure of stability in Tahrir Square.
"To the extent that there were elements within the military that participated in these abuses of journalists and others last week, they should be held fully accountable," Crowley said. "By the same token, when you look at the streets of Cairo over the past several days since the violence on Wednesday, the military did play a constructive role."
Crowley said that the State Department has formally raised the issue of military involvement in the crackdowns with their Egyptian interlocutors but declined to relate the specifics of those conversations.
A State Department official, speaking on background, said that the Egyptian military was acting during the crisis "in some instances constructively, in some instances not." The official suggested that "elements" of the military were involved, specifically military police units, which have ties to the Ministry of Interior, the department believed to be orchestrating the crackdowns.
Regardless, the acknowledgement of Egyptian military involvement in the crackdowns on activists and journalists comes only four days after Crowley praised the military. "We are very impressed with the posture and the professionalism displayed by the Egyptian military," Crowley said at a Feb. 3 press briefing.
The military's involvement in the raids is a troubling indicator for the Obama administration and others that the army is not altogether playing a mediating role during Egypt's transition process.
"It's a worrying sign of things to come," Heba Morayef, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch," told McClatchy, "because the military is going to play a big role going forward."
Following last week's unanimous vote by the Senate in support of political reform in Egypt, a group of House Democrats are calling on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to follow suit and pass an emergency resolution on Egypt.
"In view of the tragic violence unfolding in Egypt, we write to request that the House take up an emergency resolution in support of the Egyptian people and their struggle for freedom and democracy as soon as possible upon returning to session," wrote Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Keith Ellison (DFL-Minn.) in a Feb. 7 letter to Boehner.
The lawmakers said the resolution should call on the Egyptian government to halt the violence, stop blocking communications inside Egypt (which the regime already largely did last week), and call on the military to intercede on behalf of the civilians.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime has "exhausted its credibility," the lawmakers wrote, but stopped short of calling on Mubarak to step down immediately. Our sources report that the letter was crafted so as to have the best chance to build widespread bipartisan support, in the hope of moving ahead with House action at the soonest opportunity.
"This is a new day not only for Egypt and the Middle East, but for democracy worldwide," the lawmakers wrote. "The House of Representatives has an opportunity to show its support for the Egyptian people during their time of need and further their efforts to achieve freedom by passing the aforementioned resolution."
Boehner supported the Obama administration's handling of the crisis in his most recent remarks about Egypt on Feb. 4. However, he also warned about empowering some groups that are part of the opposition, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. "What we don't want are radical ideologies to take control of a very large and important country in the Middle East," he said.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
The Obama administration's message on Egypt and the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been evolving ever since protesters took to the streets of Cairo on Jan. 25, but conflicting messages from different parts of the administration are complicating the U.S. stance going forward.
The White House has been sending out the message that the U.S. is pushing the Mubarak regime to keep making further concessions to the opposition and that the transition to new leaders must begin immediately. Meanwhile, the State Department and its handpicked envoy have been more supportive of Mubarak and his new vice president, Omar Suleiman; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now has explicitly endorsed Suleiman as the man to oversee the transition process.
The latest sign of this split inside the administration came over the weekend when it was announced that Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, would step down as head of the ruling National Democratic Party.
"As the President has repeatedly said, Egyptians will be the ones that decide how this transition occurs. We welcome any step that provides credibility to that process," Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman told reporters via email.
"We view this as a positive step toward the political change that will be necessary and look forward to additional steps," a senior administration official said, indicating that this official wanted the regime to do more to satisfy the opposition's grievances.
Those comments stand in contrast to statements over the weekend by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her handpicked unofficial envoy to Mubarak, Frank Wisner, who was revealed to be working with a the lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which has Mubarak as a client.
"There are forces at work in any society, and particularly one that is facing these kinds of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own specific agenda," Clinton told the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. "Which is why I think it's important to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by now Vice President Omar Suleiman."
At the conference, Wisner went even further than Clinton, endorsing not only the leadership of Suleiman but also outwardly calling for Mubarak to stay in power throughout the transition process.
"We need to get a national consensus around the preconditions for the
next step forward. The president must stay in office to steer those
changes," Wisner told the conference.
"I believe that President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical -- it's
his chance to write his own legacy."
In an interview with NPR on Feb. 6, Clinton was forced to distance herself from Wisner's remarks. "He does not speak for the American government; he does not reflect our policies," Clinton said. She also refused to weigh in on the future of Mubarak: "Now, again, this is up to the Egyptian people."
But even Clinton's comments at the conference, supporting the process put forth by Suleiman, go further than what the White House has said, and further than what Obama said in his Sunday interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.
"The Egyptian people want freedom, they want free and fair elections, they want a representative government, they want a responsive government. So what we've said is, you've got to start a transition now," Obama said.
Clinton spoke on Feb. 5 with Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik and emphasized "the need to ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people are met, and that a broad cross-section of political actors and civil society have to be a part of the Egyptian-led process," a State Department readout of the conversation stated.
Throughout the weekend, the National Security Council continued to hold 8:30 a.m. morning meetings with senior officials from several agencies at the White House, and President Obama continued to call leaders around the world over the weekend to discuss the situation in Egypt, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
Experts noted that the administration understands that there is a limit to the influence it has with regard to how the Mubarak regime will engage the new process of reform. But, at the very least, the administration must defend the ideas that all stakeholders are included and that the reform process is legitimate and based on sound democratic practices.
"What's most important is for us to have a set of principles for an Egyptian government to support," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Despite what appears to be greater calm on the streets in Egypt over the weekend, the State Department sent out a new Travel Warning on Sunday, Feb. 6, that instructs all American citizens to leave Egypt now.
The new, stronger alert replaces a previous Travel Warning from Feb. 1 that called for the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel and their families. The State Department had been chartering planes to help evacuate American citizens from Cairo, but those flights have now stopped. Nevertheless, the new Travel Warning calls for all citizens to leave Egypt, noting the potential for more violence in the offing.
"U.S. citizens should consider leaving Egypt as soon as they can safely do so, due to ongoing political and social unrest," the Travel Warning stated. "Large-scale demonstrations with the potential for violence continue in several areas of the country, and there are periodic overland travel disruptions."
The international airport in Cairo is open and has availability on outgoing flights, the State Department said, adding that travelers can also leave Egypt from airports in Luxor, Alexandria, and Aswan.
"Do not wait for a reply from the embassy or the Department of State before traveling to the nearest airport; further delay is not advised," the warning stated.
The State Department is also calling on U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations and to not go near Tahrir Square, for fear that foreigners could again become targets of violence.
Travelers are still encouraged to register in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at https://travelregistration.state.gov. If you are in Egypt and have an emergency, you can contact the embassy at EmergencyEgyptUSC@state.gov or at 1-202-501-4444 during business hours and after hours at 2797-3300.
As the Obama administration works to encourage the Egyptian government and opposition groups to sit down together and chart a path forward, they are grappling with problem of what to do about a legal system in Egypt that is inherently unfair but that remains the law of the land.
The Obama administration's message is that the path forward in Egypt must be negotiated between all of the stakeholders in Egypt rather than imposed from abroad. However, the administration also has concrete ideals and standards its wants to see included in that process and officials are involved in discussing those details with the Egyptian government.
"The future of Egypt will be determined by its people... That transition must initiate a process that respects the universal rights of the Egyptian people and that leads to free and fair elections. And the details of this transition will be worked out by Egyptians," President Barack Obama said Friday. "What we can do, though, is affirm the core principles that are going to be involved in that transition."
Behind the scenes, administration officials are in fact getting into the details of the process. "[O]fficials from both governments are continuing talks about a plan in which Mr. [Omar] Suleiman, backed by Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, chief of the Egyptian armed forces, and Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the defense minister, would immediately begin a process of constitutional reform," the New York Times reported.
The details of that constitutional reform are crucial because they will determine the transition of power and whether or not the coming presidential elections are free and fair. Also, the process of constitutional reform will be the first test of whether the regime led by President Hosni Mubarak is actually allowing opposition groups to participate in a substantive manner.
The Obama administration, which has placed itself somewhere between the positions of the Egyptian government and the protesters by calling for a transition of government now but not calling for Mubarak's immediate departure, is well aware of these realities, according to experts close to top officials.
"The White House recognizes that there's a legal nightmare looming and that the establishment in Egypt is putting its bet on the fact that its fortunes rise the longer those knots remain tied," said the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
He said that the White House would like to see the immediate establishment of a governing council -- made up of a cross section of groups representing various Egyptian political entities -- that would take temporary stewardship of the government and be caretakers as the path forward is determined.
"You either do government and legal reform in one massive fell swoop, which none of the parties will agree to, or you basically say that the current system is so broken, you must give super powers to an anointed group of rivals and co-task them with the responsibility of getting from here to there," Clemons said.
But it will be a Herculean task untangling the Egyptian constitution and legal framework, seeing as so much is weighted toward the regime. For example, Article 5 would need to be amended to allow religiously based political parties to participate. Article 76 must be amended if independent candidates are to be allowed. Law No. 40 for 1977 needs to be changed to ensure that the committee that vets political parties is independent and not filled with government ministers. Law No. 174 for 2005 would have to be amended to allow monitors at election stations.
Voter registration in Egypt is also plagued with problems. The emergency law in place since 1981 significantly constrains political activity that could impact any future elections. Laws and regulations on campaign finance have to be enforced. And the list goes on and on.
The Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan said that basing the next round of elections on exiting Egyptian law is a recipe for disaster. "You wouldn't expect to have elections in Russia after communism based on Soviet laws, would you?" he said in an interview with The Cable.
The Egyptian government can't be left to its own devices to decide what those changes might be, Kagan said.
"This is a transition, there's going to have to be some agreement on the rules of the road. Maybe some of it can be based on Egyptian law," he said. "There's going to have to be agreement from the government, the military and the opposition on how to move forward."
How much of a role the U.S. can play in that process is not yet determined, but in order to support democratic values as well as to try and promote an outcome that protects U.S. interests of regional stability, the Obama administration has to at least try, said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"What's most important is for us to have a set of principles for an Egyptian government to support," Satloff said. "The U.S. has a possibility to help Egypt build a new system that is democratic and stable. Those things are not mutually exclusive and the U.S. should help them build it."
Congress is out ahead of the administration in calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and for the United States to cut off military aid to his regime. But while some believe the White House is using Congress to send Mubarak tough messages they don't want to -- or can't -- send themselves, it appears that Congress is reacting to events independently from the administration.
Thursday evening, all 100 senators passed a resolution that calls on Mubarak to immediate transfer power to an interim caretaker government, for that government to immediately begin a transparent process toward a free election, for the presence of international election monitors on the ground in Egypt, and "expresses deep concern over any organization that espouses an extremist ideology, including the Muslim Brotherhood."
The resolution was led by two unlikely bedfellows, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ).
Congress's stance is markedly more assertive than that of the Obama administration, which still won't publicly call for Mubarak to leave office immediately. And the administration is not going anywhere near making comments about the Muslim Brotherhood.
Experts said the administration actually benefits from having a Congress that sends stronger messages and places outside pressure on the Egyptian government.
"Whether it's a conscious or unconscious, there's a useful good cop bad cop element to all this. The administration doesn't have to overtly threaten aid to the military, but it's very useful for the Egyptian military to know that their aid could be cut off," said the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan. "I wouldn't be surprised if the administration, without engineering this, welcomes the pressure from Congress."
But both the White House and the Senate argue strenuously that any benefits from this dual messaging are purely accidental, and Congressional moves such as the Kerry-McCain resolution are not being coordinated with the White House.
"This legislation was crafted by Senators Kerry and McCain without input from the White House," National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.
"The White House was not consulted. The resolution was the product of an agreement between Senator Kerry and Senator McCain," SFRC spokesman Frederick Jones said to The Cable.
Even Kerry's Feb.1 op-ed in the New York Times, which was also out ahead of the administration's message at that time in calling for Mubarak to step aside, was not coordinated with the White House, Jones insisted.
So what about McCain's call on Wednesday for Mubarak to step aside now? At the time, due to McCain's meeting with Obama earlier that day, that seemed like an idea coordinated with the White House. But no, both sides insist that was not a move planned in conjunction with the White House.
"Senator McCain has been closely monitoring the situation in Egypt and the region as a whole - its McCain being McCain," said McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, who pointed out that McCain sponsored a similar resolution last year with Sen. Russ Feingold. The Cable reported this week that resolution died during the lame duck session.
There are other signs that Capitol Hill's tough message on Egypt is not following a White House lead. On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Ops, declared that U.S. aid to Egypt was on hold until the crisis gets sorted out.
"The fact of the matter is, there's not going to be further foreign aid to Egypt until this gets settled," Leahy told Congressional Quarterly. "Certainly I do not intend to bring it through my committee."
That's exactly the opposite of the message administration officials are sending to Egypt, considering that they are depending on their relationship with the Egyptian military to provide leverage in helping guide the crisis back to some measure of stability.
"We will evaluate the actions of the government of Egypt in making and reviewing decisions about aid. That continues," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Feb. 3.
The administration's position on aid to Egypt was supported on Thursday by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is expected to become the next ranking Republican on Leahy's subcommittee. On the Senate floor on Thursday, Graham asked lawmakers to "consider the consequences of such an action. Give the Egyptian people a chance to work this out."
Experts who are in touch with the administration agree that while the administration has been consulting with Capitol Hill, the notion that the two branches are working together on coordinating the U.S. government's message to Egypt just isn't true.
"Congress is just being Congress," said the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
Top Obama administration officials pressed the Egyptian military on Thursday to intervene on behalf of the activists, journalists, and protesters being attacked by groups of thugs supporting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as concerns grew in Washington about the military's role and agenda.
Vice President Joseph Biden placed responsibility for restoring calm in the streets of Cairo squarely in the hands of Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is also chief of the country's intelligence apparatus, when the two leaders spoke over the phone on Thursday afternoon.
"[Biden] stressed that the Egyptian government is responsible for ensuring that peaceful demonstrations don't lead to violence and intimidation and for allowing journalists and human rights advocates to conduct their important work, including immediately releasing those who have been detained," stated a White House readout of the conversation.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton specifically called on the Egyptian military, which had been staying neutral during the crisis, to take on a greater role.
"There is a clear responsibility by the Egyptian government, including the Army, to protect those threatened and hold accountable those responsible for these attacks," she said on Thursday. "The Egyptian government must demonstrate its willingness to ensure journalists' ability to report on these events to the people of Egypt and to the world."
There are conflicting reports about the Egyptian military's role in the crackdown on journalists and activists. The Cable reported earlier on Thursday that Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was arrested on Thursday morning in a raid conducted by police as well as military personnel.
The reportedly direct involvement of the Egyptian military in the raids is unsettling because until yesterday the military had been viewed as largely neutral in the clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-regime groups.
Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski said that based on today's events, the military's neutrality is no longer intact.
"I think neutrality for the Egyptian military is really impossible in this situation. If they do nothing, that's not neutrality; that tips the balance toward the ruling party," he said. Malinowski is also a member of the bipartisan Egypt Working Group, which issued a new statement on Thursday calling on the White House to make clear that military aid to Egypt will be suspended if the military fails to protect peaceful protests.
The Obama administration is working hard behind the scenes, especially through senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to impress upon the Egyptian military the need to protect protesters and support a peaceful government transition. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen spoke on Wednesday with Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan about the clashes and the military's role.
"Broadly speaking, the military has played a very important and constructive role in being a stabilizing force on the ground, particularly relative to what the situation looked like prior to the weekend," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday. "We are very impressed with the posture and the professionalism displayed by the Egyptian military."
Around Washington, the Obama administration's increasing dependence on the Egyptian military is becoming a cause of concern.
"There are reliable sources telling us that the current professional assessment in the Administration is that hoping for a military coup to kick out Mubarak is the best short-term outcome," Chris Nelson wrote in his insider Washington newsletter, the Nelson Report. "A sense coming from professionals at [the State Department is] that for all the angry rhetoric being directed at the leadership of the military, the primary emotions now at the leadership level are ambivalence and conflicting interests."
In an article on the Foreign Policy website on Wednesday, Naval Postgraduate School professor Robert Springborg argued that the military's game all along has been to feign neutrality and protect itself as a guarantor of stability as a plot to ultimately protect the regime and thwart the drive for real democracy.
"The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration," Springborg wrote. "They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy."
For now, the State Department is not yet blaming the Egyptian military for the violence perpetrated against journalists and activists on the streets of Cairo, but did acknowledge that Interior Ministry personnel have been involved.
"There are very strong indications that this is part of a concerted effort," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday. "I can't tell you who is directing it, but with the increasing number of instances of people roughed up, journalists' cars attacked, offices broken into, journalists detained, these do not seem to be random events."
The true test of could come Friday, when more protests, raids, and clashes are expected.
"We are bracing for significant increase in the number of demonstrators on the streets, and with that, given yesterday's events, the real prospect of a confrontation," Crowley said.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will bring two top national security officials to Capitol Hill next week to testify on the administration's policy concerning Egypt, and its implications for the escalating crisis there.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy will testify next Thursday before the GOP-led committee. But before Ros-Lehtinen hears from the administration officials, she will first call upon two former Republican officials for their take on the upheaval in Egypt: Former NSC Middle East senior director Elliott Abrams and Lorne Craner, a former assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor during President George W. Bush's first term. Craner is now president of the International Republican Institute.
Ros-Lehtinen, who has already pledged to examine cutting aid to countries that don't support U.S. interests, called this week for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to go further than his promise not to run for president again in September.
"Continuing with the existing timeline for elections
is not going to help stabilize the situation in Egypt. It will only embolden
the extremist elements and frustrate the Egyptian people, who seek peaceful,
legitimate, democratic change," read a statement she released on Feb. 1.
"Far-off promises of change won't cut it after decades of waiting for political
and economic reforms."
But Ros-Lehtinen might also use the hearings to publicize the argument that certain elements of the Egyptian opposition, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, might have be excluded from the new process.
"Further, opposition leaders must categorically reject the involvement of extremist elements who are trying to use this crisis to gain power, hijack Egypt's future, and seriously damage Egypt's relationship with the United States, Israel, and others," she said.
On Jan. 29, Ros-Lehtinen set out what she sees as the standards by which the Obama administration should judge opposition groups.
"The U.S. should learn from past mistakes and support a process which only includes candidates who meet basic standards for leaders of responsible nations: Candidates who have publicly renounced terrorism, uphold the rule of law, recognize Egypt's international commitments including its nonproliferation obligations and its peace agreement with the Jewish State of Israel, and who ensure security and peace with its neighbors," she said in a statement.
When the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo was raided by state security forces on Thursday, Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams was swept up in the arrests. But before he was carted off to prison, Williams had the presence of mind to call a friend in Cairo and leave his cell phone line open, to broadcast the raid as it unfolded.
The Law Center is a hub and meeting space for various human rights and civil society groups in Egypt and has been amazingly active since the protests began Jan. 25. On Thursday morning, a joint squad of police and military personnel in their respective uniforms raided the Center, interrogated all inside, and forcibly transported dozens of Egyptians and foreigners alike to an unknown detention facility, where Williams remains now.
Before his cell phone was confiscated, the person on the other end of the line, who must remain anonymous for his own safety, heard the violent details of the incident. Police and army personnel were heard ordering the activists up against the wall, started yelling at them, and then claimed they were there to protect them from the pro-regime thugs who were assembled and chanting just outside the doors and who harassed the activists as they were escorted from the building.
"We could let you go out in the crowd and they will kill you or you can come with us," the police and army personnel said, according to Human Rights Watch Washington Director Tom Malinowski, who has been working furiously to try to free Williams and the others arrested in Thursday's crackdown by coordinating efforts with administration officials and human rights groups in Washington and Cairo.
Following the on-site interrogations, the police and army personnel accused all the Egyptians working at the Law Center of being affiliated with Hamas and accused all the foreigners at the Center of being affiliated with Israeli intelligence service Mossad.
"So it's a Hamas-Mossad conspiracy apparently," Malinowski told The Cable with a sigh.
Meanwhile, human rights groups in Washington have been working closely though a stream of emails and phone call with the Obama administration to share information, coordinate action, and press the Mubarak regime to halt the arrests and release the imprisoned activists and journalists.
Primarily, this effort by the administration is run out of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, where Ambassador Margaret Scobey has taken the lead on maintaining ties to Egyptian non-governmental organizations and political opposition groups, instructing her staff to reach out to them to make sure they are safe and sharing information about what's going on. There are also officials in the State Department and the National Security Council who have longstanding ties with these groups and are working the phones on a constant basis, an administration official said, declining to provide details of those interactions.
"The Obama administration has raised with the Egyptian government the need to release people who have been detained for peaceful activism or journalism," Malinowski said. The list of foreign journalists reported to be under arrest is changing moment to moment.
For those in the human rights community who have been watching the crisis in Egypt descend into violence, the regime is clearly responsible.
"What we've seen in the last 24 hours is a counter attack by the ruling party and security apparatus of Egypt, which may be willing to concede Mubarak but isn't willing to concede the dictatorship," said Malinowski. "These thugs are part of the ruling party's army, they deploy it routinely on election days to intimidate voters and they deployed it yesterday as well."
The reported direct involvement of the Egyptian military in the raids is unsettling because until yesterday, the military had been largely neutral in the clashes between the pro-Mubarak and anti-regime groups. But it's not known if they are totally complicit in the crackdown or if they are participating in order to prevent the police from becoming too brutal.
The Obama administration is working hard behind the scenes, especially through senior defense officials including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to impress upon the Egyptian military the need to protect protestors and support a peaceful government transition. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen spoke Wednesday with Egyptian Army Lt. Gen. Sami Enan about the clashes and the military's role.
"He assures me that they're very focused on this, and they will continue to be a stabilizing influence within their country," Mullen said after the call. "So far, the Egyptian military have handled themselves exceptionally well."
But in light of the raid on the Law Center, human rights activists are no longer sure the military is neutral.
"The military's stance toward yesterday's counterattack is ambiguous," Malinowski said. "But as bad as things are, they would be worse if not for the pressure the administration has been putting on the military."
Meanwhile, the Egypt Working Group, a bipartisan team of experts that has been advising the administration, issued a new statement on Thursday calling on the White House to make clear that military aid to Egypt will be suspended if the military fails to protect peaceful protests and the transition doesn't start promptly -- as the administration has demanded.
For those who are working to secure the safety of activists like Williams, how the Egyptian military acts during these crackdowns will expose what their true motivations are going forward.
"This is an important part of the larger picture that the administration is looking at. It's one test of whether the regime, which includes the military, is in fact heeding President Obama's call for transition to orderly democracy."
President Barack Obama's pseudo-envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner is on his way back to Washington after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and new Vice President Omar Suleiman, but he has so far failed to convince the Egyptian leadership to start an immediate transition to a new form of government.
Top officials in the Obama administration continue to urge the Mubarak regime's leaders, who are still their primary interlocutors, to begin the transition of power, despite violence against protesters by pro-Mubarak groups and increasing signs that the Egyptian president has no intention of stepping aside any time soon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke over the phone with Suleiman on Wednesday.
"She emphasized again our condemnation of the violence that occurred today, encouraged the government to hold those responsible fully accountable for this violence. We don't know at this point who did it," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "And she continued to stress to the -- to Vice President Suleiman that the transition has to start now."
Obama has insisted that Mubarak begin the transition "now" in a phone call with his Egyptian counterpart on Tuesday night. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs doubled down on that position on Wednesday, saying, "now means yesterday."
Crowley spelled out exactly what the administration's message was on the path forward for a transition. "There needs to be a national dialogue, a serious conversation among a variety of players, and a clear process," he said.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry explicitly rejected calls for the transition to begin immediately, accusing Washington of inciting the protesters. Crowley responded by saying, "These demonstrators are not going away. You know, this is gathering momentum.... These steps [by Mubarak] have to be broader. They have to be more visible."
Meanwhile, a host of senior U.S. officials have been working the phones to maintain close contact with their interlocutors in the Egyptian government, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, Undersecretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, and others. Ambassador Margaret Scobey has been meeting with Egyptian officials at all levels in Cairo, as well as with opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei. But Crowley said no one in the administration has met with the Muslim Brotherhood
The administration acknowledges that they've had to change their stance on the crisis several times and that some of their decisions, such as sending Wisner to Cairo, have not worked out as planned. ABC News reported that Obama pulled Wisner back from Cairo because his effectiveness was diluted following the leaking of his conversations to the media.
A senior administration official told ABC that the administration was being forced to change its strategy "every twelve hours."
"First it was ‘negotiate with the opposition,' then events overtook that, then it was ‘orderly transition,' and events overtook that, then it was ‘You and your son can't run,' and events overtook that, and now it's ‘the process has to begin now,'" the official said. "It's been crawl-walk-run -- we had to increase the pace as events required."
Many experts see the administration as stuck with an ineffective middle-of-the-road policy that is angering both the regime and the protesters.
"The administration people are really struggling," said George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch. "They want Mubarak to go but they don't know how to make him leave."
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) just became the most senior foreign-policy figure in Washington to outwardly call for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down from power now.
"Regrettably the time has come 4 Pres. Mubarak 2 step down & relinquish power. It's in the best interest of Egypt, its people & its military," he tweeted Wednesday afternoon.
McCain, who met with President Obama at the White House Wednesday, went further than either the administration or Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who have called for Mubarak not to run again for president but have stopped short of calling for him to relinquish power at this time.
The message from McCain was not some coordinated communications strategy cooked up with the White House, according to our sources, but simply represented McCain's latest analysis of the ever worsening situation on the ground in Egypt and the handling of the crisis by Mubarak and his regime.
Only yesterday, McCain was supporting the administration's official line. On Tuesday, he praised Obama's call for Mubarak to begin an orderly transition to democracy and to not run for reelection.
"I'm not going to try to second-guess the president at this difficult time," McCain told reporters. "I think there should be a transition and an orderly one."
McCain's call for Mubarak to step aside immediately is also notable because McCain has been arguing strenuously in recent days that the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to benefit from a free election, is a dangerous and violent organization.
"Have no doubt about the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. They're a radical organization, they support Hamas, and they would be very bad for Egypt," McCain said Tuesday.
Last fall, McCain led a drive to pass a Senate resolution calling on Mubarak to advance political reform and calling on the Obama administration to press Mubarak on human rights. That resolution died before reaching a vote on the Senate floor.
"We've got to be on the right side of history," McCain told The Cable Tuesday. "If you're on the right side of history, everything will turn out OK."
President Barack Obama signed the New START nuclear reductions pact with Russia today at the White House, but no remarks were made and no reporters were allowed into the room.
The White House allowed only still photographs of the signing ceremony, which was attended by Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Bob Casey (D-PA), Scott Brown (R-MA), and Mike Johanns (R-NE) were invited, but unable to attend.
The private signing ceremony stood in stark contrast to the deluge of high-level publicity the administration gave to the drive to ratify New START, which included press events, speeches, and the like by everybody from President Obama on down through his administration. The White House did not respond to a question about whether the ceremony was closed because of the ongoing crisis in Egypt, but the White House Correspondents Association believes it was only the latest White House maneuver to keep senior officials away from the press as Egypt events unfold.
The WHCA wrote to spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday to complain about the decision.
"On behalf of the White House Correspondents Association we are writing to protest in the strongest possible terms the White House's decision to close the President's Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and his signing of the START Treaty today to the full press pool," the WHCA Board wrote. "The START treaty was held up as one of the President's most important foreign policy priorities for almost a year dating back to the trip to Prague last spring."
The White House press corps, which has had a rocky relationship with Gibbs for a long time, sees this as the latest example of the White House failing to provide the media with regular access to officials and information since the beginning of the Egypt crisis.
"Prior to the President's statement Tuesday night, the press corps had not received a substantive update from the White House all day on the situation in Egypt. In addition, the press corps did not have an on-camera briefing, or an off-camera gaggle, with you yesterday to ask the White House about its decision-making process during this major foreign policy crisis," the WHCA board wrote. "Now for two straight days the full press pool is being shut out of events that have typically been open and provided opportunities [to] try to ask the President a question."
Clinton will exchange the articles of ratification for New START with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Feb. 5 in Munich, after which the treaty will officially enter into force.
Following Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement he will not run for president again and the Egyptian protesters' apparent rejection of that concession, it's clear is that even if "envoy" Frank Wisner's mission to Cairo was a success, the Obama administration isn't out of the woods yet on this crisis.
Obama sent Wisner to deliver the message to Mubarak that he should announce he will not run for reelection in September and provide for the orderly transition to a more democratic government. Mubarak's concessions apparently didn't go quite as far as the administration wanted in detailing the terms of such a transition. But administration officials are saying Tuesday night they now realize that even if Mubarak had done everything they asked, that was not going to be enough to satisfy the protesters.
On Tuesday night, following Mubarak's remarks, Obama addressed the rapidly changing situation in Egypt. "We've borne witness to the beginning of a new chapter in the history of a great country, and a long-time partner of the United States," he said, adding that the transition "must begin now."
Nevertheless, the progress made so far has not been enough to end the standoff or repair the protesters' view of the United States, and the Obama administration now must figure out its role in what could become protracted negotiations between Mubarak and the opposition.
"Now there's a strategic game going on between the Obama administration and Mubarak," said the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook, who was in Cairo when the protests broke out. The White House should have known anything short of Mubarak stepping down immediately would not end the crisis, he said.
"Either the administration has some other strategy or they didn't realize that there's the potential for Mubarak to take the opportunity of the next few months to manipulate the political process to favor whomever he wants to follow him," Cook said. "I can't believe they thought this would satisfy the crowds."
Of course, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can point to Mubarak's Tuesday night speech in order to hold him to account if the president doesn't actually move to hold free and fair elections. But the Egyptian people, who were already angry about U.S. support for Mubarak, aren't likely to see that as a helpful stance by the Obama team.
"Everybody in Egypt knows we have enabled this regime. At this point we need to get out of the way," said Cook.
Perhaps the administration doesn't want to completely burn its relationship with Mubarak, just in case he actually prevails, but that ship might have already sailed. "The relationship is never going to be the same again, there's going to be hostility anyway, so they might as well double down [on the side of the protesters]," Cook said. "The jig is up."
According to a readout of today's national security meeting at the White House, the Obama administration is still calling for an "orderly transition" to greater democracy in Egypt - a position first outlined by Clinton on Jan. 30.
"With regard to Egypt, Secretary Clinton discussed our focus on opposing violence and calling for restraint; supporting universal rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, association, and speech; and supporting an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," the White House stated.
Behind the scenes, there are increasing signs the administration is reaching out to opposition leaders. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey spoke with Mohamed ElBaradei; a senior State Department official also said that she will be speaking with other opposition leaders.
But while Wisner, who is known for being close to Mubarak and his people, might be a perfect "envoy" to send to deal with Mubarak, he's not likely to be the American in the best position to reach out to the opposition groups. That would require a diplomat with close and personal relationships with various non-governmental entities in Egypt.
To be sure, administration officials both in Washington and Cairo have extensive ties with various opposition elements in Egypt and are in contact with them on a regular basis. But if the Obama administration wanted to quickly ramp up its engagement with the opposition, a new envoy could do the trick.
We're told that the administration is now considering a new, different envoy to send to Cairo to fulfill that very mission and the administration is focusing on another former U.S. ambassador to Egypt. The most likely candidates who fit that description are Daniel Kurtzer, an ambassador in Cairo under President Clinton with strong ties to the Obama team, Ned Walker, another Clinton-era ambassador and a former president of the Middle East Institute, and Frank Ricciardone, the ambassador before Scobey and current ambassador to Turkey.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, suggested that it might be better to keep the administration's preparations for what promises to be a radical shift in Egypt's political terrain on a lower level than another unofficial envoy, instead depending on the people who have been working with Egyptian civil society groups on the ground.
"Sending a new ‘envoy' to reach out to opposition groups would send a strong signal, but you need someone who really understands and has relationships with a wide range of figures there," he said.
As the Obama administration and the rest of the Washington foreign policy community struggle to come to terms with the unfolding events in Egypt, top White House officials and an increasing number of top lawmakers seem to agree that the U.S. should not suspend military aid to the Egyptian military in the near term.
The speculation over whether U.S. military aid to Egypt, which totaled $1.3 billion last year, would be suspended hit a high pitch on Jan. 29 when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters, "We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events now and in the coming days." That same day, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said in a statement, ""The United States must leverage its long-standing assistance to press Mr. Mubarak to let the voice of his people be heard through legitimate democratic elections."
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked that back on Jan. 30, telling ABC News, "There is no discussion as of this time about cutting off any aid. We always are looking and reviewing our aid."
And on Monday, House Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX) also indicated that aid to Egypt would not be cut off anytime soon.
"While there are calls for eliminating Egypt's economic and military aid, I urge caution when deciding what the U.S. response will be," she said. "It is critical that we are deliberate about the actions we take. Egypt has been a moderate influence in the Middle East and has a peace agreement with Israel."
U.S. aid to Egypt totaled $1.55 billion in fiscal 2010, which includes $1.3 million in direct military aid. That's down from a high of $2.1 billion in total U.S. assistance in fiscal 1998. For fiscal 2011, the Obama administration had requested $250 million in economic support funds. That request is still pending.
The Obama administration's response to political upheaval this month in Lebanon is the most recent indicator of how they view the continuation of military aid to a country where the political winds are blowing against the interests of the United States.
Despite the fact Lebanon now has a prime minister backed by Hezbollah, the U.S. will continue funding to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) for now, Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough said in a Jan. 27 roundtable that included The Cable.
"We think that it's a very important independent institution," McDonough said about the LAF. "That's why we support the Lebanese Armed Forces, not because of their association or non-association with Hezbollah, but rather because of their independence -- their independence from any political actor. We think that's very important, we're going to continue to work with them, but obviously we're going to take a look at each of the developments along the way."
The U.S. relationship with the Egyptian military closely mirrors the U.S. relationship with the LAF, said Andrew Tabler, next generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The military in Egypt right now is maintaining control and they've been responsible regarding the protesters, so they're definitely a force that the U.S. government wants to maintain favor with at this stage," Tabler said.
The administration's latest message, that military and foreign aid suspension is not in the works, is due to the fact that the military aid is directly tied to Egypt's peace accord with Israel - and, of course, because the political situation in Cairo is still in flux, Tabler said.
"The administration is sending a signal to the Egyptian military that if you act responsibly we'll stand behind you. I think that's a smart policy."
The White House sent former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner to Cairo, where he is now holding high-level meetings with Egyptian officials at the behest of the Obama administration.
"Frank Wisner is in Cairo. The U.S. government did ask him to go," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to The Cable. "As someone with deep experience in the region, he is meeting with a Egyptian officials and providing his assessment."
Earlier on Monday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley declined to name Wisner as an official representative of the Obama administration, but explained that Wisner was sent both to deliver the administration's message to Mubarak's people and to bring back information to be fed back into the decision making process.
"We have asked him to add his perspective to our analysis on current developments," Crowley said. "He has traveled to Cairo; is on the ground now. And we look forward to hearing his views when he returns."
Wisner is not officially an "envoy," Crowley noted, and administration officials declined to specify exactly who he would meet with, such as embattled President Hosni Mubarak or presidential candidate-in-waiting Mohamed ElBaradei. But Crowley said Wisner was chosen due to his longstanding ties to the Mubarak regime.
"He's a private citizen, he's a retired diplomat, he's a former ambassador to Egypt, he knows some of the key players within the Egyptian government," Crowley said, adding that Wisner "has a history with some of these key figures."
Council on Foreign Relations Egypt expert Steven Cook put it plainly. "Wisner is known to be close to Mubarak," he said.
It's exactly that history that concerns Egypt hands in Washington now that Wisner's has been given a new role in the center of Obama's policy. Before his stints on Enron's board of directors and as vice chairman of AIG, Wisner had a multi-decade career as a foreign service officer, with stints as ambassador in Zambia (‘79-‘82), Egypt (‘86-‘91), Philippines (‘91-‘92), India (‘94-‘97) and as undersecretary of defense for policy (‘93-‘94).
Since leaving AIG in 2009, Wisner has been active on Egypt policy and is said by several Egypt hands in Washington to have pushed to create a group of scholars and academics in Washington to advocate for strengthening ties to the Mubarak regime. That group, which was never fully formed, was to be a counter weight to the bipartisan Egypt Working Group led by the likes of former NSC official Elliott Abrams and the Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne. The Abrams-Dunne group had been pushing for a harder line against Mubarak in the months leading up to the current crisis.
Wisner's advocacy for reaching out to Mubarak was on display at a private and off-the-record meeting on Egyptian succession held last summer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Wisner made several pro-Mubarak arguments, according to two people who attended the session.
"He's the exact wrong person to send. He is an apologist for Mubarak," said one Washington Middle East hand who saw Wisner as unlikely to demand that Mubarak must step down or else suffer consequences from Washington -- or, failing that, deliver a strong rebuke.
But Dunne said that since Wisner is "trusted and liked" by Mubarak and others he'll be meeting with, he's the perfect pseudo-envoy. "He's ... someone who could deliver a tough message if he's given one to deliver," she said.
Wisner's father, Frank Wisner Sr., was the CIA agent portrayed in the film The Good Shepherd. Wisner was previously married to Christine de Ganay, former wife of Pal Sarkozy, the father of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.